Pope has called residential schools 'genocide,' House of Commons should too: Winnipeg MP

A New Democrat member of Parliament said Tuesday she hopes her colleagues will now recognize the residential schools system as genocide, now that Pope Francis has used the term.

Leah Gazan plans another attempt at motion that was defeated last summer

MP Leah Gazan (NDP-Winnipeg Centre), seen in a 2021 file photo, hopes the Pope's use of the word will reinvigorate her motion to label residential schools genocide. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details

A New Democrat member of Parliament said Tuesday she hopes all of her colleagues will now recognize the residential schools system as genocide, now that Pope Francis has used the term.

Leah Gazan, who represents Winnipeg Centre, tried last year to get unanimous consent from MPs in the House of Commons to press the Canadian government to call what unfolded inside residential schools a genocide.

Her motion referred to the United Nations convention on genocide adopted in 1948, which defines genocide as killing members of a group, causing them serious physical or mental harm, placing them under conditions to destroy them, imposing measures to prevent births or forcibly transferring children to another group.

Gazan said at the time that Canada's residential schools policy met all five criteria, but some voices in the House of Commons said "no," so her motion requiring unanimous consent failed.

"Having the experience of residential school survivors continually up for debate is another act of violence," Gazan said in an interview Tuesday. "We need to be mindful of that."

Pope Francis
Pope Francis told reporters on his flight back to Rome that everything he described about the residential school system and its forced assimilation of Indigenous children amounts to genocide. (Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters)

The 2015 final report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada labelled what happened inside residential schools a "cultural genocide," but some Indigenous leaders have since said it needs to be called a genocide, without the qualifying adjective.

During his six-day visit to Canada last week, Pope Francis apologized multiple times for the "evil" of what happened inside residential schools. But it was not until the Pope was asked about it by reporters on the flight back to Rome that he said he considered it to be a genocide.

Francis said he felt "genocide" was a technical term, when asked why he did not say it in Canada.

More than 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were forced to attend these institutions, which the federal government funded and different churches operated for over a century. The Catholic Church ran a majority of the residential schools in Canada.

The children who died at residential schools were remembered outside Calgary City Hall in 2021. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Thousands of Indigenous adults who were sent there as children have reported rampant physical, sexual and emotional abuse, along with neglect and malnutrition. The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation maintains a memorial register for students who died at residential schools and that number is now at 4,120.

Gazan presented her motion in June 2021, not long after the Tk'emlups te Secwepemc Nation announced that ground-penetrating radar had located what appeared to be the remains of about 200 children buried on the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C.

She said she is now planning to present another motion, but is still thinking about what it should say while the House of Commons is on its summer break.

"I hope that, you know, particularly members of Parliament who are really committed to reconciliation, committed to justice, will finally recognize what happened in residential schools for exactly what it was, which was a genocide.

"It's time for Parliament to acknowledge it as a genocide."

Upon the discovery of unmarked graves last years, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he continues to accept the conclusion from the 2019 inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls that "what happened amounts to genocide."

Conservative interim leader Candice Bergen has not yet responded to a request for comment on Thursday from The Canadian Press about whether she sees the residential school system as a genocide.

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools or by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

Mental health counselling and crisis support is also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the Hope for Wellness hotline at 1-855-242-3310 or by online chat at


Stephanie Taylor

Reporter, CBC Saskatchewan

Stephanie Taylor is a reporter based in Saskatchewan. Before joining CBC News in Regina, she covered municipal politics in her hometown of Winnipeg and in Halifax. Reach her at